There was no Internet. The Berlin Wall stood. Saddam Hussein was an ally. Walmart was not yet a global retailer and there were no supercenters. American manufacturing dominated the world. The Fort Smith metro economy was running on all cylinders, generating enough revenue for a growing school district.
Those 1987 realities are no more. But that was the last time there was a millage increase – an investment beyond the normal – for the Fort Smith Public School District.
Voting-eligible residents of the Fort Smith Public School District may begin May 7 deciding on a 5.558 millage rate increase request that would generate just under $122 million for a wide range of school facility and program improvements. Election day is May 22.
If voters approve, the district’s millage will move to 42.058 from 36.5, the proceeds of which would go toward the funding of district-wide construction and renovation projects, including $35 million in security upgrades. Additionally, there would be an $825,000 annual technology expense. Fort Smith trails Pulaski County, Rogers, Bentonville, Springdale, and Fayetteville, in both the number of mills (36.5, others range from 40.5-48.5) and revenue generated per mill ($1.449 million, others range from $1.495-$2.508 million). From that grouping, the district’s 14,340 students are the fourth highest enrollment.
It’s been 31 years since residents have been asked to make an extraordinary investment in the school district. As a result, district facilities are, frankly, an embarrassment. The average age of school buildings is 63 years. Spend a year following the district’s quiz bowl teams, volleyball teams, debate teams, bands, and other academic and sports groups, and it will be impossible to ignore how much better are the facilities of schools smaller and larger than those of Fort Smith.
There are three primary investments to be made through the millage rate request.
• Better security for all buildings. This is a needs-to-be-done-yesterday necessity not affordable with the existing budget.
• Provide for 1:1 technology at all schools. This means all students have technology resources. This is a needs-to-be-done-yesterday necessity not affordable with the existing budget.
• Develop a modern – and, ideally, flexible – career and technical education facility and program. This is a needs-to-be-done-yesterday necessity not affordable with the existing budget.
In its online literature, the school district includes one other benefit of the millage increase: “To improve student achievement and the efficient use of buildings and personnel throughout the district.”
Although well-considered and on-target for what is needed, millage approval is anything but certain. Political realities of the May primary will result in more conservative voters – folks who typically don’t support millage increases. In addition to the usual “we’re taxed enough already” crowd who aren’t interested in issue review or analysis, common excuses to oppose the millage include the city’s consent order – estimated $480 million in Fort Smith municipal water and sewer system improvements required by the federal government – the tired and wholly untrue mantra that there is enough district misspending to cover security, technology and facility needs, and those still angry about removal of the Southside mascot who see the vote as a path to punish district leadership.
As to the consent order and the mascot change, issues borne of past actions and failures should not prevent a vote for future academic and economic success.
As the world has become more complex, economic growth in almost any U.S. metro has become simple in formula: Quality of place/cultural amenities and quality of education/workforce. A region is either a competitive place in which to live and learn, or it is a place that exports people who want to live and learn.
Tom Loehr, former executive vice-president of Rolls-Royce North America and now an economic development consultant, recently spoke in Fort Smith about the ingredients for a successful metro economy. He said those who make decisions about where to locate and/or expand jobs “know how many equivalent skill sets there are employed in a 60-mile radius. They know how many students are enrolled in applicable programs in community colleges. They know what the burn rate is. They know exactly what the price of elasticity is going to be when they move into that market. Don’t think there are facilities that don’t do their homework on this thing.” There is a major “symbiotic relationship” between economic development and education, he added.
In other words, the millage increase is a needs-to-be-done-yesterday necessity if the region is to have a we-can-make-it-happen future.
There have been few votes in recent decades that have held such importance for the future of the metro area as does this millage vote. It will be an historic marker. 31 years is too long to make an investment beyond the normal, but the plan funded by the millage rate request gives Fort Smith a fighting chance to catch up.